Nearly 40,000 members of the Oglala Lakota Sioux nation live on the 2.8 million-acre Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. "Families that have been poor since the U.S. government forced tribes onto reservations more than 120 years ago see few prospects for breaking out of seven or eight generations of profound poverty," Leslie Maxwell reports. The area has also been plagued by high rates of alcoholism and suicide, particularly in young people. "The state of American Indian education is a disaster," said David Beaulieu, a professor of education policy and community studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe-White Earth.
American Indian graduation rates have been getting steadily worse since 2008, according to analyses by the research center of Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week. "It's been almost 12 years since 'No Child Left Behind' was implemented, and we essentially have no appreciable results to show for it," said Beaulieu, the director of the Office of Indian Education in the U.S. Department of Education from 1997 to 2001.
"Four of the five poorest counties in the United States fall either wholly or partly within American Indian reservations, according to the 2010 U.S. Census," Maxwell reports. The unemployment rate is around 80 percent, and Shannon County has a per-capita of less than $8,000 per year and relies on federal funding.
"We have a lot of young people on the reservation and not nearly enough jobs," said Christopher G. Bordeaux, the executive director of the Oceti Sakowin Education Consortium, a group of tribal schools in the Pine Ridge and other South Dakota reservations. "So that presents challenges to us as educators when we are trying to convince our young people to stay in school, to do well, in school, to graduate, to go on to college."
Legend Tell Tobacco, an energetic 10-year-old in 4th grade, lives on the Pine Ridge reservation. His mother, a college graduate, said, "The two most important things I want for Legend are for him to get his education and for him not to drink. But I don't know if I can completely protect him from ending up on a path that so many other youth on this reservation take." She said drinking has been a problem for many of the men in the family.
Legend attends Loneman School, which is totally dependent upon federal funding. "In 2011-12, the school struggled to nudge a little more than 25 percent of its students to proficient reading levels as measured by the South Dakota state assessments," Maxwell reports. The new principal, Charles Cuny Jr., is trying to improve the situation. "What I see children dealing with here . . . [are] the same questions of identity, cultural isolation and poverty. What I really want for our students is for them to feel positive about being Native American. I want them to see that as their biggest strength from which they can build on."
The Morongo Band of Mission Indians in California is spending its casino-generated money on a new school to battle the years of low achievement. The Morongo School opened in 2010, and it has 140 students from preschool to 9th grade. The school employed the Common Core State Standards, and the classrooms even include technology such as iPads and Apple TVs. The school works mostly free from government requirements. "We didn't want any government money," said Morongo tribal council chairman Robert Martin. "We didn't want the curriculum controlled by anyone else, and we know we are fortunate to be in that position."
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